National crisis management more important than future of the EU

1. How does the future of the EU after the Irish ‘No’ look like?

 

For the past two years, but espe­cial­ly since autumn 2008, Latvia has been increas­ing­ly pre­oc­cu­pied with its own prob­lems. The Lat­vians are par­tic­u­lar­ly con­cerned with:

  • the qual­i­ty of polit­i­cal lead­er­ship, espe­cial­ly at the nation­al lev­el, and the dra­mat­ic decline in con­fi­dence in the elect­ed and appoint­ed officials;
  • eco­nom­ic recession.

Giv­en that cred­i­ble steps to resolve the prob­lems are not yet in sight, ear­ly in 2009 the Lat­vian pub­lic is focus­ing more than ever on their own prob­lems. Oth­er issues, includ­ing the Lis­bon Treaty and the future of the EU after the Irish ‘No’, are regard­ed as hav­ing less immediacy.

In ear­ly Novem­ber 2008 the Min­istry of For­eign Affairs pro­mot­ed a four-day vis­it to Por­tu­gal for the pur­pose of bet­ter acquaint­ing Lat­vian jour­nal­ists with the Lis­bon Treaty. They, in turn, were expect­ed to stim­u­late the inter­est of the Lat­vian pub­lic in the treaty and its implementation.[1] The results, how­ev­er, did not meet the expec­ta­tions owing pri­mar­i­ly to the unex­pect­ed col­lapse of the “Parex” bank, the sec­ond largest bank in Latvia which had hereto­fore enjoyed a very good rep­u­ta­tion both at home and abroad. Act­ing on news received only a few days ear­li­er, the Prime Min­is­ter, Ivars God­ma­n­is, decid­ed on 8 Novem­ber 2008 to bail out the bank.[2] The imple­men­ta­tion of the deci­sion revealed basic weak­ness­es in the country’s econ­o­my and extreme­ly short-sight­ed plan­ning, espe­cial­ly dur­ing the years when Aigars Kalvītis was Prime Min­is­ter and Latvia was expe­ri­enc­ing fast growth and steadi­ly increas­ing inflation.

Con­se­quent­ly, there has been min­i­mal pub­lic dis­cus­sion of the Lis­bon Treaty and its impact on Latvia, and even less dis­cus­sion of the Irish ‘No’, the pro­posed ways of resolv­ing it or what might hap­pen to the Euro­pean Union should the dilem­ma become pro­tract­ed. The broad­er inter­na­tion­al issues have become more and more the domain of the country’s lead­ers because the pop­u­lace has been focussing on domes­tic devel­op­ments. Cur­rent­ly, issues, such as the for­ma­tion of a new Euro­pean Com­mis­sion in autumn 2009, appoint­ment of the High Rep­re­sen­ta­tive for the Com­mon For­eign and Secu­ri­ty Pol­i­cy and the EU inte­gra­tion process, are not on the public’s list of pri­or­i­ty top­ics and they have not been dis­cussed in the mass media. While many polit­i­cal par­ties have already cho­sen their can­di­dates for Latvia’s del­e­ga­tion to the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment, no pre-elec­tion excite­ment is yet to be felt among the electorate.

The address of Pres­i­dent, Vald­is Zatlers, to the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment on 13 Jan­u­ary 2009 in Stras­bourg, illus­trates well the EU top­ics per­ceived as most rel­e­vant to Latvians.[3] Recall­ing that the year 2009 marks the fifth anniver­sary of Latvia’s mem­ber­ship in the Union, the pres­i­dent under­lined the impor­tance of the EU enlarge­ment of 2004 for Latvia. The pres­i­dent also expressed his appre­ci­a­tion to the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment for declar­ing 23 August as a day of remem­brance of the vic­tims of Stal­in­ism and Nazism.

Turn­ing to cur­rent issues, Zatlers wel­comed the EU’s ini­tia­tives to deal with the inter­na­tion­al eco­nom­ic prob­lems; Zatlers thanked warm­ly the Euro­pean insti­tu­tions and indi­vid­ual coun­tries for the assis­tance offered to Latvia to over­come its eco­nom­ic dif­fi­cul­ties. He focused on the Union’s ener­gy secu­ri­ty and its East­ern Part­ner­ship, and wel­comed the Baltic Sea region­al ini­tia­tives and projects.

In con­clu­sion, Pres­i­dent Zatlers out­lined his vision of the Euro­pean Union in 2015, not­ing also Latvia’s role and the hon­our and respon­si­bil­i­ty of assum­ing the EU pres­i­den­cy that year. Reit­er­at­ing his sup­port for the Lis­bon Treaty and the con­clu­sions of the Euro­pean Coun­cil of Decem­ber 2008 to acti­vate it, he called for a more unit­ed Europe and cau­tioned against mea­sures that could lead to frag­men­ta­tion or “a Europe of sev­er­al speeds”.

The President’s endorse­ment of the Lis­bon Treaty does not reflect ful­ly the vari­ety of sen­ti­ments in Latvia. While most Lat­vians see their parliament’s approval of the treaty on 8 May 2008 as a con­di­tion of belong­ing to the Euro­pean Union, 13 polit­i­cal activists ques­tioned the pro­ce­dure, claim­ing that a ref­er­en­dum was manda­to­ry. On 25 July 2008, they asked the con­sti­tu­tion­al court to con­sid­er the issue. In autumn, the court agreed to look into the mat­ter and ear­ly in 2009 both sides were prepar­ing their cas­es for the first hear­ing, sched­uled for 3 March 2009. How and when the court will decide can­not be predicted.[4]

As for Pres­i­dent Zatlers, in his speech he did not acknowl­edge the pos­si­bil­i­ty that the Lis­bon Treaty might end up in a state of lim­bo either in Latvia, or in the Euro­pean Union as a whole. His view of the EU in 2015 was dis­tinct­ly upbeat. Quot­ing the Lat­vian poet Rai­nis, who said that he who changes will sur­vive, Zatlers envi­sions the EU as one of the pil­lars of eco­nom­ic pow­er after the world­wide eco­nom­ic cri­sis has been over­come. Fur­ther­more, the will and abil­i­ty to be unit­ed in diver­si­ty will be the key to increas­ing the EU’s role in the world. It will also per­mit the admis­sion of oth­er Euro­pean coun­tries, which uphold Euro­pean val­ues, into the Union. The EU will have become larg­er while retain­ing its abil­i­ty of act effec­tive­ly. The Union will not look at its mem­bers through the prism of geog­ra­phy, geopol­i­tics, or length of EU mem­ber­ship, but rather their achievements.

2. Transatlantic relations renewed after President Bush: top priorities

 

Obama has not prompted Latvia to re-examine Latvian-US relations

In Latvia, as in oth­er Euro­pean states, the elec­tion of Barack Oba­ma as the Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States was met with wide­spread pub­lic approval. Despite the fact that ‘change’ was the prin­ci­pal theme of Obama’s cam­paign, there was in 2008 and there is in ear­ly 2009 no rea­son to antic­i­pate fun­da­men­tal changes in US-Lat­vian rela­tions. These can be char­ac­terised as a strate­gic partnership.

Giv­en the pre­oc­cu­pa­tion of Lat­vians, par­tic­u­lar­ly since Novem­ber 2008, with their own prob­lems, the elec­tion of a new US Pres­i­dent has not prompt­ed them to re-exam­ine Lat­vian-US, let alone transat­lantic rela­tions. There has been no com­men­tary in the Lat­vian media in recent months devot­ed specif­i­cal­ly to redefin­ing or revi­tal­is­ing Euro­pean-Amer­i­can rela­tions dur­ing the Oba­ma Presidency.

From the mea­gre dis­cus­sions on top­ics relat­ed to transat­lantic rela­tions in the Lat­vian media and pub­lic state­ments of offi­cials, it appears that the more preva­lent views on improv­ing EU-US rela­tions reflect many of the main­stream views of lead­ing EU offi­cials and polit­i­cal pun­dits else­where in Europe. A ten­ta­tive list of rec­om­men­da­tions from Latvia could be:

Europe must learn to speak with one voice. By exten­sion, the EU must demon­strate uni­ty of pur­pose, accom­pa­nied by the nec­es­sary capac­i­ty to act in line with that pur­pose. Thus, the EU would demon­strate more con­vinc­ing­ly to the rest of the world that it is a cred­i­ble part­ner to be reck­oned with.
Firm advo­ca­cy of mul­ti­lat­er­al­ism rather than uni­lat­er­al­ism or bilat­er­al­ism – all involved par­ties should be at the dis­cus­sion table.
Bet­ter coor­di­na­tion of activ­i­ties on mat­ters of com­mon inter­est and com­mon chal­lenges, and these are a multitude.
The wish of the Euro­pean Union to strength­en its role in glob­al affairs has been all too fre­quent­ly ham­pered by the inabil­i­ty of the mem­ber states to speak with one voice on impor­tant issues. This has also affect­ed transat­lantic rela­tions by mak­ing it eas­i­er for Wash­ing­ton to take the ini­tia­tive with­out ade­quate­ly con­sult­ing with Brus­sels. Aware of these weak­ness­es, the EU has insti­tut­ed major reforms, most notably the Lis­bon Treaty, but until they are func­tion­ing con­sid­er­able time will have passed. In the mean­while, the first two steps of the Union should be simul­ta­ne­ous: on key issues, the EU mem­ber states should define and agree upon a com­mon stand or pol­i­cy guide­lines that are bind­ing for all mem­ber states while speed­ing up the reform process.

Uni­ty of pur­pose in Europe is par­tic­u­lar­ly impor­tant as the world becomes increas­ing­ly mul­ti-polar with the cen­tres of pow­er no longer being the Unit­ed States and Europe as it was at the start of this cen­tu­ry. In the inter­ven­ing years we have seen Rus­sia suc­cess­ful­ly reassert itself and as a major pow­er and the grow­ing impor­tance on the world stage of Chi­na, India, and Brazil. This is the sit­u­a­tion as Pres­i­dent Oba­ma starts his pres­i­den­cy. From his ini­tial state­ments, it is clear that Europe will con­tin­ue to enjoy a spe­cial role in Amer­i­can for­eign rela­tions; Europe should not expect Wash­ing­ton to be less atten­tive to its rela­tions with oth­er major pow­ers. Thus, the EU should real­ize that it too is a part of the mul­ti­lat­er­al world and is per­ceived as such by oth­er players.

On areas of com­mon inter­est and com­mon chal­lenges, such as deal­ing with glob­al eco­nom­ic prob­lems, and ener­gy and cli­mate change, renewed atten­tion should be giv­en to bet­ter coor­di­na­tion of activ­i­ties and exist­ing coop­er­a­tion frame­works. Clear­ly, the work of the “Transat­lantic Eco­nom­ic Coun­cil” should be enhanced. In the realm of inter­na­tion­al secu­ri­ty, the EU mem­ber states should reassess their own coop­er­a­tion, and clar­i­fy their com­mon strate­gic vision, espe­cial­ly vis-à-vis the out­side world.[5] This, in turn, should strength­en the foun­da­tions of EU and NATO rela­tions and facil­i­tate prac­ti­cal coop­er­a­tion. Efforts should also be made to raise the lev­el of exist­ing coop­er­a­tion regard­ing the coun­tries affil­i­at­ed with the Euro­pean Neigh­bour­hood Pol­i­cy and involved with East­ern Part­ner­ship. Will­ing­ness to do so, as has been expressed by Beni­ta Fer­rero-Wald­ner on 3 Decem­ber 2008, should be fol­lowed up by con­crete efforts.

3. Financial crisis and challenges of global governance: the EU response

 

Response to global challenges should not be decided by a select few

Latvia expects the EU to react ener­get­i­cal­ly to the chal­lenge of over­com­ing the glob­al eco­nom­ic decline and restor­ing growth and that in order to achieve this, a new archi­tec­ture and new mech­a­nisms are need­ed for the glob­al finan­cial sys­tem. The response to this glob­al chal­lenge should also include pur­su­ing active­ly the Doha Round of dis­cus­sions on lib­er­al­is­ing world trade to their log­i­cal con­clu­sion and sup­port­ing con­sis­tent­ly a pol­i­cy of free and open trade.[6] The resul­tant agree­ments and poli­cies, Latvia feels, would present a wider win­dow of oppor­tu­ni­ty for devel­op­ing its own for­eign trade relations.

More specif­i­cal­ly, dur­ing the Czech Pres­i­den­cy of the EU, Latvia antic­i­pates imple­men­ta­tion of the steps agreed upon dur­ing the Euro­pean Coun­cil of 11 and 12 Decem­ber 2008. Like­wise, Latvia antic­i­pates sim­pli­fi­ca­tion in the appli­ca­tion pro­ce­dure for, and speed­i­er dis­burse­ment of, the var­i­ous EU funds for assist­ing agriculture.

Latvia endors­es the prin­ci­ples of the G20 dec­la­ra­tion, announced in Wash­ing­ton on 15 Novem­ber 2008, and would like to con­tribute to the dis­cus­sions at the EU lev­el of the fol­low-up G20 Sum­mit in April 2009.

The performance of the EU in the financial crisis so far

Latvia tends to look at the per­for­mance of the EU in the world­wide finan­cial cri­sis almost exclu­sive­ly through the prism of its own set of prob­lems and chal­lenges, espe­cial­ly those deriv­ing from its eco­nom­ic reces­sion. Con­se­quent­ly, the view from Rīga can be sum­marised very quick­ly. First­ly, the gov­ern­ment and the peo­ple are grate­ful for the Union’s speedy deci­sion to offer finan­cial assis­tance. There is also much appre­ci­a­tion for allow­ing the recip­i­ent coun­tries to choose the appro­pri­ate polit­i­cal instru­ments that they see as best suit­ed for reju­ve­nat­ing their economies. Thus, Lat­vians intend to fol­low close­ly how the assis­tance funds are spent so that the funds tru­ly stim­u­late a sol­id eco­nom­ic recov­ery lead­ing to renewed growth.

Expected shifts in the international power constellation

The response to this very broad ques­tion entails rather sophis­ti­cat­ed prog­nos­ti­ca­tion and a glob­al, rather than a nation­al focus on cur­rent devel­op­ments. As not­ed ear­li­er, cur­rent­ly Latvia is most con­cerned with how best to resolve its own prob­lems. Regard­ing the future, the ideas that have been aired so far seem to reflect main­stream Euro­pean think­ing. One is that the response to glob­al chal­lenges should not be decid­ed by a select few, but that the cir­cle of dis­cus­sants and deci­sion-mak­ers should be increased to include as many stake­hold­ers as pos­si­ble, even if arriv­ing at an agree­ment becomes more time-con­sum­ing. This in turn could serve to revive the ques­tion of com­pe­tences: when and where the EU should be rep­re­sent­ed as an organ­i­sa­tion and when EU par­tic­i­pa­tion would be via the par­tic­i­pa­tion of indi­vid­ual EU mem­ber states? With­out attempt­ing to sort this ques­tion out – this has to be done by all the mem­ber states – one way that the EU can ensure its glob­al rel­e­vance is by con­tribut­ing vis­i­bly and effec­tive­ly to a suc­cess­ful eco­nom­ic recov­ery of, and renewed growth, in its mem­ber states. This would also strength­en the Union’s posi­tion in a mul­ti­lat­er­al world.

 

 

 

[1] Min­istry of For­eign Affairs: Latvi­jas žurnālisti Por­tugālē uzzi­na par Lis­abonas līgu­ma nozī­mi Eiropas Savienības tālāka­jā attīstībā, press release, 7 Novem­ber 2008, avail­able at: http://www.mfa.gov.lv/lv/Jaunumi/vestniecibu/2008/2008–11-07–4/ (last access: 25 Jan­u­ary 2009).
[2] See BNS and LETA, news agen­cies: dis­patch­es of 8 Novem­ber 2008.
[3] Pres­i­dent Zatlers deliv­ered his speech in Lat­vian. For the full text see: http://www.mfa.gov.lv/lv/Jaunumi/Runas/2009/janvaris/13–1/?print=on (last access: 25 Jan­u­ary 2009). The sub­se­quent ref­er­ences to the speech will not be sep­a­rate­ly footnoted.
[4] See LETA, news agency: dis­patch­es of 16 March 2009, avail­able at: http://leta.lv/archive_item.php?id=C83892EF-C833-4FCC-AF1D-84E561806473&phase=Lisabonas+l%C4%ABgums&sd=1&sm=1&sy=2008&ed=23&em=2&ey=2009&t[]=t0&t[]=t1&t[]=t3&t[]=t5&t[]=t4&more=true&moreid=0 (last access: 25 Jan­u­ary 2009).
[5] These ideas come from a dis­cus­sion in Octo­ber 2008 among mem­bers of the Euro­pean Affairs Com­mit­tee of the Lat­vian par­lia­ment and Lat­vian gov­ern­ment offi­cials. See LETA, news agency: dis­patch of 20 Octo­ber 2008.
[6] The answers to this set of ques­tions draw main­ly on a doc­u­ment out­lin­ing Latvia’s pri­or­i­ties dur­ing the Czech Pres­i­den­cy of the EU. See Lat­vian Min­istry of For­eign Affairs: Latvi­jai būtiskākie jautāju­mi ārli­etu jomā Čehi­jas ES prezi­den­tūras laikā 2009. gada pir­ma­jā pusē, avail­able at: http://www.mfa.gov.lv/lv/eu/Prioritates/CehijaPrezidentura/ (last access: 25 Jan­u­ary 2009).